Anonymous NSA Officials Strike Back!

President Obama embraces outgoing national security adviser Tom Donilon alongside incoming national security adviser Susan Rice at the White House on June 5, 2013. What secrets were whispered during this hug?

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Ken Dilanian and Janet Stobart chip away at the White House’s excuses—hey, we weren’t told—on the NSA’s monitoring of foreign leaders.*

The White House and State Department signed off on surveillance targeting phone conversations of friendly foreign leaders, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said Monday, pushing back against assertions that President Obama and his aides were unaware of the high-level eavesdropping.

Professional staff members at the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies are angry, these officials say, believing the president has cast them adrift.

They would say that, wouldn’t they? But keep reading:

Obama may not have been specifically briefed on NSA operations targeting a foreign leader’s cellphone or email communications, one of the officials said. “But certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.”

Who’s suggesting otherwise? The question, in pure scandal terms, is whether the president approved of this snooping and has since lied about doing so, or whether the snooping predated him and he was informed of it, like everyone else, by the world’s most famous former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor. Republicans, led here by John McCain, are open to a special committee investigation of “what the president knew and when he knew it.” (Like so many reactions to this scandal—remember the legislation that was going to tighten up security clearances?—this will probably peter out.) The White House would prefer that the anonymous and unaccountable paladins of the security state take the hit for this one, and allow the president the plausible deniability that he may have already had. It’s all in on the Dianne Feinstein “no one told us this was happening” explanation. And it still can be, if all the anons are saying was that Obama may not have been briefed on this but probably signed off on it.

*Correction, Oct. 29, 2013: This post originally misspelled Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Dilanian’s last name.